DEBORAH JEROME: Thank you.
Good afternoon and welcome, everyone, to this Council on Foreign Relations media conference call. We'll be talking about the tumultuous events in Egypt where President Mubarak told his countrymen last night that he would not stand for reelection in September. And today Mubarak's supporters and opponents are locked in bloody battles in Cairo.
I'm Deborah Jerome. I'm the deputy editor of CFR.org. And here to answer your questions are Isobel Coleman and Ed Husain.
Isobel is a CFR senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy. She's also the director of the council's Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative, and director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program here. Isobel just returned last week from Egypt and Yemen, and it seems as though history followed in her wake.
Ed has recently joined the council as a CFR senior fellow. He is an expert on issues ranging from counterterrorism to civil society, counterradicalization policies and more. So you are all in very capable hands.
The format here will be that Isobel and Ed will each offer their perspectives on the situation in Egypt and then we'll open this up for questions. There are a lot of you on the line.
So without further ado, Isobel, do you want to start?
ISOBEL COLEMAN: Thank you, Deborah, and thank you all for joining us here today.
As you all, I'm sure, are aware, this is a very fast-moving, very fluid situation. And we're hearing reports now live coming from Cairo of very bloody, as Deborah said, interactions between pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators. As far as I understand it, the army is still standing on the sidelines, which some are interpreting to mean really acquiescing in the pro-Mubarak violence against the demonstrators.
There's been a lot of finger-pointing at the United States, saying, you know, really the United States did not give a -- either a strong enough message or it gave mixed messages to Mubarak that's behind this more vigorous protection of the Mubarak regime now. I don't know that to be true. I think that the Obama administration is really struggling to keep up with events itself. But the idea of using, you know, tremendous force to keep Mubarak in power, I think, is -- I find that hard to believe that that's U.S. policy.
I also find it, frankly, hard to believe that the army is going to go along with that. I think it would be so damaging to the army's reputation that they must be looking for some type of transition here. And maybe what's going on is just a bargaining for time as they try to find an appropriate acceptable alternative candidate.
As I said, the situation is very fluid. It's hard to predict what's going to happen. But from my time spent in Cairo and conversations that I've had with people, you know, over the last few days from Cairo, I think that at this point the protesters really will accept nothing less than Mubarak himself stepping down and assurances that, you know, he and his son are both out of the running, and some type of process that is delineated to get from where they are now to more free and fair elections, which is going to require some constitutional changes. But that is really what that protesters are demanding, and anything less than that will not suffice.
And so at this point, I think that the sooner that there is a move to a transitional government, the better. The sooner that there is a return to stability the better because, as we all know, these tumultuous times have a -- have a tendency to take on a momentum of their own and to really surpass those who are in the front of it right now.
I think this has been very much of a youth-led movement, a secular movement. But, you know, there are other elements within Egyptian society. It has become an increasingly conservative and religious society over years. The Muslim Brotherhood is one of the better-organized and more institutionalized organizations in the country that actually is very involved in the delivery of services, social services on the ground, so it touches a lot of peoples' lives. And I think while there are very moderate elements within the Brotherhood today, there are some that are not so moderate. And the more that there is violence and chaos, the more that moderate voices get pushed to the side.
ED HUSAIN: You know, I mean, just to follow on from what Isobel was saying, I just want to highlight three broad themes that are, I think, instructive from the developments of the last eight days in Egypt, but also in the wider region.
And I think the first thing is to say that, just homing in on Egypt for a moment, that things will get worse in Egypt before they get better, just today's developments, but also tomorrow's developments. And I think more worryingly, if the current trend continues, what will happen on Friday after Friday prayers, when millions will gather from across the country, across Cairo, indeed, and then come out of mosques and those that are pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak, demarcation lines, and then, God forbid, some kind of bloodbath could ensue based on what we're seeing today and what's being planned for tomorrow.
A second theme that strikes me is that it's often been argued that people in Muslim-majority countries, in the Arab world in particular, and those who are from a Muslim mind-set, you know, they -- quote/unquote, "they hate us." And the only alternative to the tyrannical regimes, the dictatorial regimes there, could either be Islamists, extreme radical Islamists or, you know -- it's, you know, that whole wing and it's al-Qaida-like offshoots, or it's the Mubaraks and the Saudis and others.
The last few weeks, especially the last few days in Egypt, completely undermines that whole narrative and shows that it's not that they, quote/unquote, "hate us," but like -- I think like President Obama said, these are universal values of freedom of dignity, of human equality, and we're seeing them expressed by Egyptians from across the political spectrum; some who are Islamists, many who aren't. Many come from other political and religious traditions, and yet they believe in these fundamental human values.
And a third point is that the situation is very volatile, not just in Egypt but across the region. And much of the media commentary that we've seen, especially here in the U.S., I think risks not just undermining U.S. national interests in the region and beyond, but also making the bad guys good. And by that I mean those who are demonized in the media here tend to become lionized among a large section of people in the Arab street. And my focus here would be on the Muslim Brotherhood.
I mean, I am a newcomer to the States; I've only been here for about two months. And to refer to the Muslim Brotherhood as al-Qaida and radical Sharia enforcers and, I mean, other things have been said about them -- Nazis, even -- all of that, I think, makes ordinary Egyptians wonder why is it that, quote/unquote, "the West" -- because for them the Western media, the Western government, for many of them it's one and the same thing -- you know, why are they so much against the Brotherhood? What is it that makes the Brotherhood so demonized? And what that then lends to is an attitude of rebellion, of poking fingers at the West. And by extension, what happens is they -- the Muslim Brotherhood and others become lionized. So there is that risk, I think, in this volatile situation, that nongovernment, independent media, analysts, commentators, reporters, run the risk, I think, of lionizing those that we should not be lionizing.
So with those few words, I'll stop here and hand back to Deborah.
JEROME: All right. Well, actually, we're going to turn it over to all of the various media who are on the line and waiting to talk to you.
OPERATOR: At this time, we'll open the floor for questions. (Gives queueing instructions.)
Our first question comes from Peter Green, Bloomberg News.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for getting on the call with us today. I'm wondering who the heck is going to lead this revolution, assuming Mubarak steps down. How long, for instance, does Suleiman have before he, too, will have to step aside? ElBaradei doesn't seem to be a widely lionized leader in Egypt. Who else is out there? And what should the U.S. be doing in terms of picking a candidate, or just waiting on the sidelines? Thank you.
COLEMAN: Well, maybe I can just jump in here. I think that the U.S. would be making a terrible mistake if it thought it could pick a candidate. What we've all been saying is that this is a very fluid situation, and the idea of, you know, picking candidates and putting them forward -- I think we saw how well that worked in Iraq. And I think it would be even less successful in the Egypt context.
You know, it's really not clear who is going to lead this, you know, very broadbased opposition movement. ElBaradei, as you said, is not a revolutionary figure by nature. He's really a technocrat. I think he has improved his street cred in the last week by returning and being on the streets with people, but, you know, he looks a little uneasy out there, if you've seen him in his leather jacket and his bull horn. It's just -- it's just not, you know, where he naturally fits. But he is a well-known figure. Whether he can actually ride this tiger is very unclear.
There are, you know, other people, but nobody really has a big, broad national standing. I mean, it's possible that Omar Suleiman himself could choose to run for president. And I think there's a certain element of trust that people have in the army, but that could be changed very quickly, as violence progresses in the next couple of days. So I think what you're seeing really right now is a -- is a bit of a power vacuum, certainly, among the opposition that makes the unknown all that much more worrying.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jonathan Broder, Congressional Quarterly.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Also, my thanks for -- to you guys, for holding this conference call. My question has to do with Obama, and particularly his sort of ambiguous announcement in response to Mubarak's announcement the other day that he wouldn't run again for reelection. Obama basically, you know, said that the transition to democracy had to begin immediately. At least, that's what I sensed was the main sort of money-quote of that -- of that thing. But that -- it was very ambiguous. It didn't say whether Mubarak has to step down and someone else has to begin the transition or -- I mean, it was very, very unclear what he meant by that. And in the meantime, you're getting some folks on Capitol Hill -- not a lot, I mean, just some outliers, I would say, like Ackerman and Kucinich -- who are saying that the United States should cut off aid to Egypt as a -- as a way to pressure Mubarak to step down immediately.
And it seems to me that therein lies the dilemma for the administration. Does it -- does it continue to back -- well, I wouldn't say back Mubarak, but not -- you know, not cut off aid and not be any more specific in its demands that the transition begin immediately? Does that risk the demonstrators coming to the conclusion that we are backing Obama (sic) against their sort of cri de coeur for democracy? And then, of course, if Obama were to pressure -- use stronger tactics to pressure Mubarak to step down, what sort of message would that send to other pro-American Arab leaders?
So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the position that Obama is in, and how he might handle that.
COLEMAN: Well, I'll just make a few short comments, and let Ed jump in here. But I think you are characterizing this exactly right, which is that, you know, Obama and U.S. foreign policy is between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, you know, to sort of pull out the rug from under Mubarak doesn't say much for our, you know, long-term relations with this guy. On the other hand, I think we really run the risk of being caught on the wrong side of history here.
And I think we have already been caught on the wrong side of history. I mean, the equivocation out of Washington is interpreted very clearly on the streets in Cairo as siding with the government. I mean, you can look at the blogs, look at the postings. I think, you know, the United States would have to have taken a much stronger tact earlier for people to view it as being on their side.
On the other hand, I'm not sure there's really anything that we could have said or done that would make us, you know, beloved of the people on the street. I think that, you know, we are so closely associated with Mubarak and the Mubarak regime that, you know, that's the reality.
You know, right now, what we don't know is what's being said in private to Mubarak. There's a lot of interpretation of what's going on today with the escalating violence, that we somehow acquiesced in this. I don't know that to be true. I think at the end of the day, the army and Mubarak -- they're making decisions based on their own self-survival. And, you know, whether or not we are providing a billion dollars in military aid would be an influential factor but not a decisive factor, I think, in where they come out on this.
HUSAIN: I mean, I'm in broad agreement with Isobel's comments on this, that aid is, you know, a major factor but not the -- not the most important factor in all of this. And I think raising questions of cutting aid and so on -- I mean, it doesn't look as appealing or as magnanimous as it ought to from the -- from the -- from the other side. I mean, that's not the way you treat partners.
And if Arab governments and the Arab masses are to see the U.S. as they ought to as a partner on a whole host of fronts, then, you know, you don't subject your partners to all kinds of threats.
But that said, presumably, there's a relationship in place where there's some level of reciprocity, where in private, one hopes that President Obama and his team in Cairo are pressing for Mubarak to go. The signs are that Mubarak isn't listening, but I'm assuming that's the argument that's being made. Presumably the counter arguments coming from Omar Suleiman and others are stronger.
Essentially, Mubarak is a military man. Essentially, the Egyptian regime is a military regime. And they would want to see their man sent off in some kind of respectable way. And Omar Suleiman and others will ensure that somehow this comes about. I think the announcement the day before yesterday was supposed to be that kind of respectable farewell to a person who's served the country for 30 years. Mubarak himself went as far saying, you know, I've fought for this soil and I want to die in this -- this whole Arab patriotism kicks in, and it's very strong.
All of that said, I don't think it undermines America's relationship in any deep and significant way if it was understood that when masses rise up against any given ruler who doesn't have political legitimacy to start with, then, you know, America as an advocate of freedom and democracy is on the right ordinary people. And regimes ought to reform tangibly, immediately. Unless they do so, they can't rely on unlimited support from America. I think that's a worthwhile principle that's worth advocating and adhering to.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Shaun Waterman, Washington Times.
QUESTIONER: Hello. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask about the impact regionally. I mean, setting aside the demonstration effect, you know, it's often said that Egypt is a key ally for the United States because of its role in the region. And I just -- you know, if the government is paralyzed for a long period by this ongoing crisis, what impact is that going to have, you know, on some -- on those many other things going on in the region: the Iranian issue, the crisis in Lebanon, the peace process and so forth?
COLEMAN: Well, I think it has a chilling effect on -- in many respects. I think you're seeing a very key, you know, player, a strategic ally in turmoil and chaos. And it's eclipsing really what's going on, in many respects, in other places.
And I think you will see inaction and inertia setting in on some of these other topics because so much bandwith, so much attention, so much energy, I think, is being sucked up by what's happening in Egypt. And not just in Egypt but in other places, I think we're really seeing a reworking of the landscape of the Middle East. And it's not clear until the dust settles what that landscape is going to look like going forward, but it will undoubtedly have significant repercussions for all of those other issues that you mentioned.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Chandrakant Pancholi, Overseas India Weekly.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Can you just guess as to how long these demonstrations can continue? Because there will be food and water shortages, and people are not working.
And secondly, isn't there -- we are thinking in terms of democracy there, but isn't there only two alternatives: Their army will crack down and take the power, or the Islamist party, the brotherhood, will slowly make inroads, even, if necessary, by violence? So there is no democratic alternative there. Are there any stronger parties still in Egypt?
COLEMAN: Ed, do you want to answer?
HUSAIN: Sure. I mean, on how long, I mean, this can go on for a very long time. The amount of people that -- on both sides of the divide that happen to be unemployed, that happen to cry repeatedly in public for employment, for job opportunities, for things of that nature means that they have enough time on their hands to return to Tahrir Square on a regular basis and protest.
Given that it's also a very young population that's involved in the protest, given that many of them are students, I don't think there's a sort of practical stoppage to any of this, that they've got to go back to university or they've got to go back to work or anything along those lines.
So there's that immediate concern in terms of it lasting, given that the -- their ultimate demand, which is, President Mubarak, step aside, and step aside now isn't being met.
And just to underscore the seriousness of this all, I'm not sure if you followed over the last three days -- people have been turning up in some of these demonstrations in white shrouds. And this is the funeral clothing for Muslims. And many of them had written on it, you know -- (speaks a phrase in Arabic) -- this is for the sake of Egypt. In other words, we're prepared to die, and we've already come with the funeral shrouds, for Egypt. So that's how serious some of the young people are taking it to be.
So there is a possibility that this could go on and on, unless President Mubarak moves and moves now, without the sort of -- the talk of, you know, September and beyond.
In terms of alternatives, I mean, Islamist parties -- the Muslim Brotherhood, for all intents and purposes, for this protest is a minority player, though it is a powerful minority player. I don't think that the Muslim Brotherhood will resort to violence to either gain power or retain power. It's been there before, in the '60s and the '50s, and it failed. And for the last 40 years it's committed to a process of nonviolence. And many of the calls towards peace for this entire protest were put out by the Muslim Brotherhood, to its credit.
And yes, the army is there, but the army's also there in Turkey. And I envisage a situation where, like in Turkey, the army may well become the ultimate arbiter of maintaining a secular state for either the short or the medium term, even perhaps the long term. Who knows? It depends on what happens.
But there are other democratic parties, you know, Hizb el-Ghad , the Kifaya movement. The Wafd Party is still out there, in some form or another. And I think the most beautiful thing about all of this, up until the violence broke out, was that this was a response from people who are broadly secular, broadly liberal, broadly pluralistic. And I don't think we ought to undermine their organic, native, localized style of perhaps emerging into political parties themselves as civil society opens up and normative left-right politics emerges. And I think that's what we will see, hopefully.
COLEMAN: Yeah, I would just echo what Ed is saying. You know, from my time in Cairo just last week, I mean, people across the spectrum are really using the language of democracy and freedom and just their desire for -- to be able to have greater choice in their life and in how they're governed.
And there are -- there are secular opposition parties that -- they're weak, and they have been made weak over the years by tremendous repression from the Mubarak government. And it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood is better organized, is -- has more inroads into society, but I'm not willing yet to count out some of the more secular opposition.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jim Dingeman, Pacifica Radio.
QUESTIONER: Yes, hi. Thanks again for doing this. It's very valuable.
I have two questions.
First of all, can both of you imagine -- I'm not asking you to predict, because who knows what's going to happen -- what kind of forms you see, that you've seen on the ground, that reflect the pre-existing political (conflagration ?)? What forms are, in your mind, evolving through this?
And secondly, what knowledge or insights do you have into the vagaries of loyalties and political sentiments witthin the officer corps, enlisted men, et cetera, within the army, versus the security forces? That is, if the violence continues and if we see changes in this kinetic and dynamic situation, would there be a fracturing of the armed forces or the security forces, and how would that fall on political lines, or would there not be?
COLEMAN: Well, just taking the last part of that question, I think that there's a lot of concern within the army not to see that fracturing. And there's a wariness of that in the idea of asking, you know, young soldiers to fire on their countrymen. I mean, I think if you've seen the pictures, the people have been, you know, cheering the army, welcoming the army. They've been high-fiving each other.
And if you have to turn that around and then have these young army, you know, officers order their men to fire on the people, I think you're going to see some balking and having a problem with that. And I think that's a situation that is of concern at senior levels and they don't want that to occur. They don't want to put themselves in that position.
So a fracturing of the army is a possibility and, I think, one that they're really trying to avoid, which is why right now you're seeing the pro-Mubarak protesters, they're not army people. I mean, who are riding on those camels through Tahrir Square today, and horses? You know, I don't know who those people are. They're not army people. But they've got clubs and sticks and knives, and, you know, some are calling them thugs. But they're probably government -- paid government-backed thugs, but not, at this point, the army.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question comes from Martin Klingst, Die Zeit.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Thank you very much. It's very valuable, what you're doing. I have a question though, if you could tell me a little bit more about the army and what is their demand and what is the ultimate goal if there is some kind of transition. You know, how could they work with the opposition? I know that they are very much intertwined with the government and also with business.
And second question: Aren't we over-estimating the U.S. role in Egypt, you know, because on the one hand you say the Obama government, you know, should put more pressure on Egypt, on the Mubarak government; on the other hand, everyone says, well, you should not name any opposition politician who could, you know, overtake the government, because once the United States mentions a name, it will be a lost candidate. So, you know, it's a difficult role also for the Obama government.
HUSAIN: I think -- if I may, Isobel --
HUSAIN: I think there's -- I mean it's perfectly feasible to call for or ensure that, however it's done, that President Mubarak moves -- you know, gracefully moves to -- aside as quickly as possible. But that's not to say, you know, the U.S. or the West in general then gets involved in cherry-picking candidates. It's then left to the Egyptian population to not just nominate whether it's Amr Moussa from the Arab League, who's very popular, or whether it's Ayman Nour, who came second -- runner-up in the 2005 election, or whether it's their own Arnold Schwarzenegger-type figure or whoever else they want in Egypt. It's for the Egyptians to decide -- or whether it's, you know, a senior court judge -- you know, it's an Egyptian decision and the West need not be seen to be interfering. So I think it's perfectly feasible to want to end the status quo and then instigate a new era without ostensible U.S. meddling.
COLEMAN: I would completely agree with that, and say that even if we wanted to meddle -- I mean, I go back to the Iraq example. You know, we decided that Ahmed Chalabi was going to be our guy in Iraq, and the Iraqis disagreed. It didn't play out that way.
I think that if, in fact, there is a more open and free system in Egypt for opposition candidates to emerge, we don't even know who it might be. I mean, I happened to see Alaa Al Aswany, the writer of "The Yacoubian Building," when I was in Cairo last week.
I mean, he is a passionate democrat with a big following. Who's to say somebody like him wouldn't emerge and capture the imagination of people? It doesn't have to be a career politician, but someone who's seen as, you know, clean, noncorrupt, honest and have the interests of the -- of the country at heart.
I mean, we really couldn't predict what would happen. Who would have predicted in our own country that Obama today would be president?
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jane Cowan, ABC News Washington.
QUESTIONER: (Off mic.) What should the United States be doing in response to this violent turn things have taken? It's been suggested by some analysts that this is an attempt by pro-Mubarak supporters to frighten the world off and really play into Mubarak's hands by thinking that the protestors need now just to be gotten off the streets and bring everything to an end to avoid further violence.
And secondly, there have been reports that these pro-Mubarak mobs have been accusing the protestors of leading an American-backed revolution. Is there any sense that Barack Obama's most recent comments, that seems to amount to his strongest support yet for the protestors, have been counterproductive and contributed in any way to he outbreak of violence? Are we to read anything into the timing?
JEROME: Ed, do you want to take that?
HUSAIN: I mean, I'm convinced that Barack Obama's statements were not in any way counterproductive. If anything, the statement came too late. My assessment would be had that statement of immediacy, the use of the words now and the extra force and leadership shown in Barack Obama's last statement, had that come about, say, you know, four days previously, we would probably have seen Mubarak go or the protestors satisfied sooner, or Mubarak in a position that makes it more difficult for his people now to come out and say, you know, this has been seven days of humiliation for our leader; he's given 30 days of -- 30 years of service and the kind of things that they're saying: That we'll support you with our blood and with our soul.
You know, I think it would not have been possible. But I think Obama's statement was too late rather than on time and, therefore, I think it's wrong to say, perhaps, in anyway, that, you know, Obama's comments instigated what we saw in Egypt most recently.
COLEMAN: Yeah, I think that these events have a life and a momentum of their own, and that everybody's playing catch-up. The Obama administration has been playing catch-up, trying to figure out, you know, where things are going to break and how things are going to fall. But Mubarak has been playing catch-up, too, you know, making concessions here and there that are simply, at this point, not sufficient, not enough.
You know, I think what is becoming increasingly clear is that Obama is -- that Mubarak is not going to go without a fight. And I think that the United States has to be more and more clear about how, you know, we're not going to -- we're not going to back him on that. The fact is that he's been in power for almost 30 years. He's 82 years old. He, you know, was not a well man. People were predicting his, you know, imminent demise when he was out of the country having surgery last year. The fact that he's clinging on and hanging on like this is, I think, a sign that he's not going to go easily.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from James Kitfield, National Journal Magazine.
QUESTIONER: Yeah, thanks for -- thanks for taking the time. I'm just curious whether -- I mean, even before the recent democracy outbreaks, we saw Iran and Hezbollah feeling their oats a bit enabled, I think. I know they have really nothing to do with what's going on in Egypt, but I'm curious whether you think there's danger that they will see this as an opportunity to raise Cain, to agitate against either Israel or Egypt. Or what will their strategic calculus be at this point?
And secondly, if you want to weigh in, I'm curious what you think Israel's equities are. I mean, it's been -- it's been told to me by a number of experts that this is just a disaster for Israel. I'm curious whether you agree.
COLEMAN: Maybe I can just comment briefly on Iran. You know, I think it's interesting to see the narrative coming out of Tehran about what's going on in Egypt. You know, there's a very strong perspective, that official line, that, oh, this is just like the 1979, you know, Islamic Revolution; there's going to be a similar Islamic revolution in Cairo; and cheering it on.
But you've also heard coming out of Iran the counternarrative: No, this is not 1979. (Chuckles.) This is 2009. This is a people's movement and it's, you know, reinvigorating the Green Movement in Iran.
So I think we're going to see dueling narratives here with everybody trying, of course, to put their spin on it. But I have to believe that the Ahmadinejad regime is nervous in Iran looking at this, you know, broad-based peoples' movement and how it's toppling what was, you know, considered to be a very entrenched regime.
So I think there's got to be concern on that part.
Ed, do you want to take another part of that question?
HUSAIN: The Israel element, I think that -- you know, Israel still lives in this, you know, post-Holocaust concern, existential angst and rightly so and it's understandable on many fronts. But that said, it's worth remembering the fact that Israel is still the region's only superpower as it were, as a regional superpower. And it has nothing to fear from an Egypt, assuming that -- you know, the Israeli -- not the Israeli, but several Israeli commentators and leading statespeople have come out and said -- well, not leading, but former people have come out and said that of the situation in Egypt doesn't bear particularly well for Israel.
I'm not convinced that that's the case. Worst-case scenario and let's assume that Egypt turns belligerent towards Israel, Israel has won three wars in that region. Israel remains a superpower. Israel is well and more than capable of defending itself. And I'm not suggesting it come to that, but Israel ought to have that level of confidence that in order to avert some kind of possible future conflict, that we now make sure that Mubarak is kept in place and Egyptian democratic aspirations are killed off. But I just don't think that's a credible argument, nor is it good for Israel's long-term interests or wider regional interests.
So I think it's sensible and it's fair, it's democratic to allow the Egyptians to take their own course. And believe the Muslim Brotherhood when it says it wants to uphold the peace agreement -- that's something that Kemal Helbawy said last weekend, but they want to ensure that it's just. That's a huge advance from where they were five years ago, saying they don't recognize Israel or the peace agreement. And I think, you know, we should have more faith in the Egyptian people and the sort of people that are leading the protests at the moment. They're not necessarily committed to just ongoing warfare, and the first priority is not -- and nor is it the second or third priority -- to turn to -- warfare towards Israel.
So Israel's concerns are there, but I just don't think they're borne out by the kind of people that are on the streets of Cairo now or are likely to take over power.
COLEMAN: Yeah, I mean, I would concur with Ed. I think that you've got, you know, several generations now of Egyptians who've grown up with a grudging, but still they're acceptance of the state of Israel. And the other thing is, you know, I just have an expert brief that's on CFR.org, looking at some of the, you know, economic realities of Egypt today. And the fact is that, you know, Egypt is in a tenuous economic position. It is not a rich Gulf oil country with lots of natural resources. And it has over the years through the qualified industrial zones developed a fair amount of trade with Israel that it -- textiles and other things that go to the United States duty-free.
These types of things are a way of, you know, enmeshing Egypt with Israel economically that certainly can be undone, but are costly to undo. And I think Egypt is so reliant on traffic through Suez, so reliant on tourism -- for foreign exchange, you know, it has no interest in -- economically in being at war with Israel.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Laszlo Tokes, Peoples Freedom
QUESTIONER: Thank you very much for this availability. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, you mentioned catch-up, but do you actually believe that the U.S. government was somehow ill-prepared for what we have seen in Egypt over the past few days? Or are you saying that you can't reasonably expect more -- the situation is very fluid, as you were describing and no matter how many resources, diplomatic and other, the United States has, the Mubarak regime has been around for three decades, and inevitably, you -- all you can do is just catch up.
COLEMAN: Well, I'm not making excuses for the diplomatic corps in the United States, but what I'll tell you is, I -- you know, I am a so-called expert on the Middle East.
I was in Egypt last week and these events have taken me by surprise, I mean, I don't think a week ago I would've been predicting how things have evolved. It -- you know, Tunisia took the world by surprise. I think that when you look at the region and say, okay, what country is most likely to, you know, experience this type of broad-based, you know, socio-political unrest, I'm not sure that Tunisia was the one that was jumping to mind for me.
So, you know, let's hope that our diplomatic corps is nimble and insightful. On the other hand, my guess is that they are being reactive to these events in large part.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Yun Wu, Peoples Daily. Yun?
Our next question comes from Chin Yua (sp), China Daily.
QUESTIONER: Yeah. Thank you. My question, do you think that the U.S. government has been too active or too interventionist -- too interventionist in this issue? I mean, they treated Egypt like it's one of its territory or colonies. Because if -- you know, what happened seemed to suggest if the tea party rallies in this country, Mubarak or other world leaders should call Obama and say, hey, please prepare for the transfer of power.
And my other question is, do you think that this is sort of a betrayal of Mubarak is going to have a bad repercussion in the Middle East? Or does that mean the U.S. government is apologizing for its policy in supporting some of the authoritarian governments in the Middle East?
COLEMAN: Well, I think at the bottom line, the United States government pursues its interests, and for many years it seemed that it calculated that being allied with Mubarak, for better or worse, was actually aligned with its interests. There was, you know, a lot of debate in recent years over that support and particularly during the Bush administration and a lot of, you know, public pressure put on Mubarak for reform and then a backing away of that. But I think what's happening now is a new calculation -- is it -- is it better for the United States to continue to back Mubarak or not? And, you know, ultimately, this is about hardcore national interests.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Alex Kingsbury, U.S. News and World Report.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for having this availability. It's been a great discussion. I have two, sort of quick questions, One, I'm wondering, you know, is there any sort of precedent that the word of the U.S. president has either halted or poured kerosene on a popular, you know, a popular uprising like this? There seems to be a lot of call for this, but I don't know that there's a lot of history of a president, say, meaning the crowd will go one way or the other. And the other thing is, you know, are the other countries, Egypt's neighbors, playing any sort of demonstrable role in these demonstrations, either talking with the government, sealing their borders, affecting, you know, anything like that, you know -- or are they playing any role?
JEROME: Ed, do you want to take it?
HUSAIN: Sure. I mean, on the idea of a precedent, I mean, nothing immediately comes to mind. But I would say that, in hindsight, you know, often those who have been abandoned do say that, you know, we're standing up or we stood up for democracy and we didn't find the world's leading democracy beside us.
And those complaints have come from -- you know, whether it was in Tiananmen Square or whether it was Iran last year, forgive me, in 2009, you know, people -- democracy activists repeatedly say that. And those who stand up for democracy around the world expect the U.S. to be on their side, and, you know, why not? I think it's a good thing. It's not necessarily a negative thing. And people who stand for other ideologies and other mindsets in the past and in the present tend to find support elsewhere, not just financial support, but other forms of support. And those advancing a -- you know, free, fair and humane world look to the U.S. and that can only be a positive thing. And that's why the U.S. ought to be principled and fair and transparent and humane and good-natured in doing so and not play the ugly games that, you know, often -- you know, the harsh world of politics plays up.
In terms of other countries, I think that the most interesting country in the world, at least to my mind in the region is what's going on in Syria that, despite all of this, there was an interview you would've seen most recently by the Syrian President Bashar Assad. And that is a country in which the army has opened fire on its people; killed approximately 30,000, some say 25,000 people back in 1982. That's an army, and it's -- which had a composition that's different from the composition of the army in Egypt.
But interestingly, the living standards in Syria are comparatively higher and better than those in Egypt. Obviously the numbers differ. I think the Syrian population is about 20 (million), 22 million. The Egyptian population is about 80 (million) to 81 million. There are other factors that distinguish those two countries, but the instability that's rocking most of the region seems thus far not to have impacted Syria. But that said, Syrian opposition groups are calling for some kind of action on February the 5th, so we shall wait and see.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question comes from Susan Page, USA Today.
QUESTIONER: Yes, thank you.
You know, we've been in this -- the United States has been in this situation before, where there's a leader -- a foreign leader with whom we've been closely aligned for many years faces a popular uprising. And I wonder if you see lessons to be learned from some of those previous experiences, whether it involves Iran, or the Philippines or somewhere else?
COLEMAN: Well, I think this goes back to the point that I was making earlier, where the United States gets caught between a rock and a hard place. We have an ally who has served their purpose and is, you know, becoming more of an albatross than a -- than a benefit, and that's when you have those, you know, hard calls to make.
And it's not clear when that tipping point is reached. I think with Marcos, you know, it was -- there was a path to something different. It was obvious that the country was ready, and it was a call that Reagan made to tell his, you know, close friend, hey, it's time -- it's time to go, you know, time to move on. You know, the same conversation -- and it turned out very well, and democracy, for all of its messiness, was ushered in, in the Philippines and it's remembered as a great moment.
Of course, things turned out very, very differently in Iran, and it leads to tremendous second-guessing on these pivotal moments. And I think that were it not for the specter of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, I think you would have seen a much more forceful America with this transition in Egypt perhaps years and years ago.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question comes from Diana Molineaux, Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
QUESTIONER: Yes, good afternoon. Thank you very much.
I wanted to ask your opinion about those speculations that actually the army may have had something to do with the starting of this crisis because they were worried about the situation of Mubarak. And what do you think of all this?
COLEMAN: Ed, do you want to take it?
HUSAIN: I'm not aware of those details, other than to say that, you know, the army is an instrumental part of the regime, and anything the regime was involved in, the army would inevitably be involved in.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question comes from Pam Benson, CNN.
QUESTIONER: Hi, thank you. I wonder if you could go back a little bit, on the Muslim Brotherhood. Can there be a new government, whatever it is, without their support or without them having some type of role in it? And, you know, some people have said if they do have a role, you could look for them to become more radicalized. Is there anything to indicate that?
(MS. COLEMAN ?): Ed, why don't you take that one?
I think that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't have an eye to the Khomeini-type figure. In other words, it's not in a position to say that, you know, this is our man, or our woman, indeed, that we will put forward. And if this person doesn't get in, then, you know, we will turn to guns, and what have you. That's not the position the Muslim Brotherhood is in. Practically all -- to be fair to them -- politically, that's not where they are.
Where they are is that they want to be part of a parliamentary democracy. They want to be able to back either one candidate or several candidates for president. And they -- if they get their way, I think they will command around 30 percent, if not higher, of the national vote for parliament, and they will have a parliamentary presence.
Now, that ought to be welcomed rather than stigmatized. And I think having them as part of the political process, bringing them into the wider political machinery on the grounds that they respect the constitution -- which I think they will and have done in the past -- provided the constitution is obviously, you know, secular, liberal, democratic, and sovereignty belongs to people.
And two or three other issues surrounding the kind of engagement -- issues-based engagement that there ought to be with the Muslim Brotherhood is that, rightly, it often talks about human rights. And this is not me making it up. This is what they, on a regular basis, ask for. Human rights means full rights for women, full rights for religious minorities, and others. And that ought to be not just enshrined in the constitution, but signed up for by the Muslim Brotherhood. Also, issues such as Israel's Jewish democratic status as a neighbor -- that ought to be respected, not just by the Muslim Brotherhood but all players in Egypt.
As long as those issues-based agreements are drawn up for all the players in the national sphere, then I think the Muslim Brotherhood ought to be a welcome force within Egyptian politics. And I think that helps send a very strong signal, not just to other Islamist groups in the region, but beyond the Arab world that, you know, Islamist organizations -- you know, provided they sign up to what most people in the world sign up to -- are more than welcome to play a part and be what they are. In other words, religious conservatives and faith-centric political activists. And in principle, I mean, you know, that's part and parcel of a pluralist society, and they ought to be welcomed on those grounds.
COLEMAN: Yeah, but just to add to that, Ed, they have not yet actually signed up for all of those things.
After they did become the largest opposition party in 2005 -- or opposition group, of course, not as a party, since parties are technically illegal, but they ran as independents and, you know, people knew that this group within parliament was representing the Muslim Brotherhood -- there was enormous pressure on the brotherhood to come out with a platform. What do they stand for?
And they did that. You can find it in English on their website. And there was a fair amount of debate within the brotherhood because there were two controversial aspects of that: One is that -- a statement that a non-Muslim could never be the leader of Egypt. This infuriated the Copts, as you can imagine. And the other is that a woman could never be the leader. And it played into people's fears that, you know, this is a -- not a pluralistic group, not one to support women's rights and minority rights in the country.
And so there has been a lot of debate within the brotherhood over these points, with the younger members of the brotherhood and more moderate factions saying: Why can't a non-Muslim be a leader of the country? Why can't a woman be a leader of the country? And yet, you know, it's also clear that there's not a, I think, a consensus within the brotherhood on some of these key points, as Ed is stating, that I think they would need to ascribe to, to give people comfort that they're going to actually play by -- you know, play by the democratic rules.
HUSAIN: Yeah, I mean, the fact that you and I are, you know, exchanging views on this illustrates how live an issue it is among us as it is out on the street.
I just want to, you know, say one thing and then hand it back to questions, and that is: The most recent BBC HARDtalk episode had Kamal El-Helbawy, who's a -- who was a former representative, has been a member of the brotherhood for 50 years, very senior, fought in Afghanistan, et cetera, et cetera. And I disagree with him for other reasons, but it's interesting and instructive to hear him say that if Margaret Thatcher was ruling in Egypt he wouldn't have a problem. (Chuckles.) That's an interesting way of him responding to some of the points you raised.
But that said, he's only one voice --
COLEMAN: He's one voice.
HUSAIN: Exactly. And it's the debate point you're making. It's healthy that inside the Muslim Brotherhood that debate is happening, I think.
COLEMAN: Yes. And you can see it. There's a -- you know, there's a blog that has some of the comments on it, on their website, that reveal some of these divisions within the brotherhood itself.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question comes from Dorothea Hahn, die Tageszeitung.
QUESTIONER: Yes, hello, and thank you for the interesting discussion.
I wanted to widen the question to the larger region. You have been talking about -- you mentioned that the United States should not be on the wrong side of history. And I would like to know if that also would be your position as far as the protest movements in Yemen and in other countries in the region are concerned? Thank you.
JEROME: Ed, do you want to take that?
HUSAIN: I think that it depends on the country, and it depends on the particular ruler, and it depends on the opposition that's coming about in the given country. And, you know, those factors determine whether history is moving in one direction or another.
And Egypt is so special because -- not just because of its geographic placement, or its, you know, the intellectuals and the gravitational pull from the rest of the Arab world, and the historical attraction towards it, and there's a lot going for it on a sort of cultural level.
But more importantly, this was a country in which people feared, literally feared in the depths of their heart, any sense of being contrarian, of speaking out against the regime. And this is a country in which -- I mean, it's indecent to talk about the kind of inhuman treatment that people undergo in prison.
Now, for innocent people, young people to break that fear factor on the streets of Cairo, and a regime not to open fire on the people, I mean, something's changed. There's been a seismic shift here. And that's what determines what the next step of history will be, whether the regime will continue to be what it was for the previous 29-plus years -- in other words, repressive, brutal and hold down its people -- or will it start to accommodate. And once the regime starts to want to accommodate, you know a new chapter of history is beginning and the old regime and the old days are over, and therefore Egypt is on a different future.
We're not there with other countries yet, so therefore I think it's wrong to start saying that, you know, every demonstration that happens, say, in -- (inaudible) -- or Amman or in Damascus is some kind of indication of the future, and therefore we must -- or the West must immediately change course. So, much depends on the facts on the ground on a daily basis.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question comes from K.P. Nayar, The Telegraph.
QUESTIONER: I wonder if the analysts would agree with the view that there's been a lot of stereotyping and obsession with Western interests in Egypt in the international reporting of the current events? For instance, there have been several reports about the problems at Cairo airport for passengers trying to leave, the chaos, the bribes being demanded by policemen.
The Telegraph is an Indian newspaper and the experience of my colleagues who have been covering the story has been quite different. India, for instance, evacuated 18,000 people from Egypt -- 18,000 of its citizens. India sent a fleet of Air India aircraft and evacuated them without any problem at all. And my colleagues in the paper who've talked to people who returned from Egypt said that they had absolutely no problems leaving Egypt.
So since Isobel was there last week, I wonder if she could address this issue?
And the second part of my question is addressed to Ed, which is that there seems to be a unifocal attention in the reporting of Egypt on U.S. interests in Egypt. But, you know, Egypt has a bigger role. Egypt is part of the Arab League, the African Union; it's a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement; it's part of G-77; it's part of the OIC.
So going beyond U.S. interests in Egypt, could you address the issue of how the events are going to affect Egypt's larger international role? Because, I mean, Egypt, in my view, doesn't belong to the U.S. Egypt traditionally and historically has played a larger role, going beyond relations with the U.S. So could you address that question as well?
COLEMAN: Well, on the first part, you know, being in Cairo last week -- Tuesday, when the protest started; Wednesday, when they escalated; Thursday is the day that I left -- you know, clearly I saw a lot of riot police on the streets, I saw the young people demonstrating. But it was very contained. I mean, my hotel -- I was staying at the Grand Hyatt; it's right, you know -- a five-minute walk from Tahrir Square. And it was very contained, and I didn't have a sense of, you know, danger, or implosion or anything like that. When we left on Thursday there was no sense of panic, nothing. It just seemed like a completely normal, routine day.
I can't really comment on what's transpired since, since I'm not there. But looking at the television, I mean, it has escalated so dramatically. And the other thing, you know, shutting down the Internet and disrupting cell phone service, I think really infused a sense of panic in a lot of the international community, because they're cut off and they don't know what's going on. And it's just a very unnerving time, and there is escalating numbers of people on the streets and violence.
And so it, I think, caused a lot of people to want to evacuate. And you've seen companies evacuating their employees; you've seen embassies evacuating their employees at a time when commercial flights have been canceled. And it's left a whole lot of tourists from around the world stranded in Egypt, which again, you know, compounds this sense of urgency there for the people who are actually there.
JEROME: I hate to interrupt, but it's 5:00, so we're -- our time is up.
Thank you everyone for joining us, and thank you very much, Isobel and Ed.
COLEMAN: Thank you, Deborah.
HUSAIN: Thank you, Deborah.
JEROME: Okay, Bye-bye.
COLEMAN: Thank you.
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